Washington's Other Scandal | frontline online
navigation, see below It Can Be Changed: by Ellen S. Miller

Public Campaign is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization promoting reform to dramatically reduce the role of special interest money in the electoral process through public financing of campaigns in exchange for strict spending limits.

While Congress has once again failed to address the most serious loopholes in the campaign finance system-huge "soft money" contributions to the political parties from corporations and unions, and secretive spending on attack advertisements masquerading as ads on issues-by passing the McCain-Feingold reform bill, the underlying transformation of representative government into a cash-register democracy is going unattended.

The people we send to Washington dont look to and listen to those segments of society that dont give campaign money. The more time they spend with contributors instead of constituents, the more they lose touch with the concerns of average people. This year, the money chase has gone into hyperdrive. Candidates for Senate and House seats have raised over $484 million since January 1, 1997, an eight percent increase over the same period in 1995-96. More money is pouring in even though the total number of candidates running has declined and there are fewer open seats being contested. Contributions of both hard money to the political parties are also up drastically compared to the last off-year presidential cycle. Republican receipts of hard money are up 19%, to $193 million, while Democratic hard money donations jumped 30%, to almost $108 million.

Where does all of this money come from? The people giving money to candidates are numerically a tiny group. Just over 600,000 Americans--or one-quarter of one-percent of the population--make such contributions. And this group doesn't look much like America.

  • 95 percent of the people who contributed to federal campaigns in 1996 were white, though people of color make up about one-quarter of the population;

  • 80 percent of the donor class were men, though women are actually 51 percent of the population;

  • nearly half were over the age of 60, while just 13 percent of the population is 65 or older;

  • 81 percent had annual incomes of over $100,000, compared to less than 5 percent of the general public.

  • The 100,000 residents of just one elite zip code in Manhattan (10021) gave nearly twice as much money as the 9.5 million residents of all the zip codes throughout the country in which people of color comprise well over half of the population (483 zip codes). For every $86.72 that New Yorkers living in this exclusive area contributed, 59 cents was contributed by people living in the 483 zip codes.
  • Why is this dangerous for our democracy? The people we send to Washington don't look to and listen to those segments of society that don't give campaign money. And the more time they spend with contributors instead of constituents, the more they lose touch with the concerns of average people. Under our privately-financed campaign system, lawmakers don't have the luxury of spending time with friends and neighbors back home talking about school safety and child care and job security. Instead, they have to shake hands at high-donor cocktail parties where they hear about capital gains and inheritance taxes and the negative impact of a minimum wage hike. Changing this rotten system will take more than just closing down loopholes like soft money or issue ads. It requires ending candidates' dependence on wealthy special interest funding.

    In the meantime, the impact on governance is enormous. Those incumbents who worry about their re-election or political advancement tend to do the bidding of deep-pocketed donors--especially when the issues at stake are far from public consciousness. One can document a host of special favors sought by and granted to wealthy interests in the last year:

  • bankers picking the taxpayers' pockets to protect the cozy profits they make on student loans.

  • credit card agencies skewing the bankruptcy code to make it easier for them to collect from debtors.

  • alcohol producers rallying to block tougher drunk-driving standards.

  • health insurers and HMOs watering down attempts to regulate the managed care industry.

  • polluters delaying the implementation of tougher air-quality standards and softening the White House's position on global warming

  • big airlines shifting ticket taxes onto the backs of frequent travelers and smaller airlines.

  • meat and poultry packers blocking efforts to strengthen food safety enforcement.
  • The list goes on and on. And in every case we find the narrow interests of organized money swinging the vote against the broader public interest.

    Fortunately, the public doesn't have to wait for the politicians to fix this system; we can do it ourselves. Across the country - in forty states - citizen activists have formed coalitions seeking to create an alternate, impartial source of financing for election campaigns and thus break candidates' direct dependence on special interest cash. This kind of reform, called Clean Money Campaign Reform, has the potential to fundamentally transform our political system. Under Clean Money Campaign Reform, candidates who agree to not raise or spend any private money (including their own) and to abide by spending limits receive equal and competitive amounts of financing from a Clean Elections Fund. Unlike other comprehensive reform measures, the Clean Money system dramatically diminishes the influence of big money in our elections. It also offers qualified candidates a level playing field on which to compete, it helps focus campaigns on the real issues and not the quest for dollars, and it is constitutionally sound.

    Already, voters in Maine and legislators in Vermont have voted to create Clean Money systems for their state elections. This fall, voters in Arizona and Massachusetts will be the next to show the way. The outcome of these state ballot initiatives will have a tremendous influence on all subsequent efforts to win campaign finance reform. Victories will demonstrate the breadth of public support for comprehensive measures and pave the way for similar reform efforts being planned in places like Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Wisconsin, and New York City. If you want to get more involved, find your local state contact or check out Twenty Things You Can Do to Clean Up Elections," a free citizen's activist guide.

    In baseball we don't allow the players, the managers or individual owners to pay the umpires, for obvious reasons. We don't allow plaintiffs or defendants or even lawyers to pay judges' salaries. For the same reasons special interests should not be financing politicians' campaigns.

    The public wants fundamental campaign finance reform and it's time we gave it to them. Indeed, by huge margins, voters in eight states support the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, according to a series of new polls commissioned by Public Campaign in late August. Solid majorities of those polled also support farther-reaching reform measures such as Clean Money Campaign Reform. The surveys--conducted in Colorado, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and Ohio--provide the strongest indication to date of the resilience of the campaign finance reform issue.

    Support for legislation that prohibits soft money contributions and reins in issue advertising by independent organizations ranges from 75 percent in New Hampshire to 58 percent in Mississippi (70 percent in Missouri, 69 percent in Colorado, 69 percent in Ohio, 65 percent in New York, 64 percent in Indiana and 59 percent in North Carolina). Opposition fails to top 20 percent in any of the states surveyed, and intense supporters outnumber opponents by more than 3-1.

    Voters are also eager to see reforms adopted that go well beyond the soft money and issue advertisement provisions of McCain-Feingold. At least 60 percent of voters and as many as 74 percent support a Clean Money system (74 percent in New Hampshire, 70 percent in Missouri, 66 percent in North Carolina, 66 percent in Ohio, 65 percent in New York, 64 percent in Mississippi, 63 percent in Colorado and 60 percent in Indiana).

    It's time that we made it possible for politicians to run for office without being funded by the moneyed interests they inevitably oversee. It's time we eliminated money-raising as a test of a candidate's viability. It's time to stop the money chase. It's time for real reform.

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